Also note that the win condition (fear, kill invaders) is totally decoupled from the loss condition (too much blight, no presence). That means you can be very close to winning *and* very close to losing at the same time. This is not a coincidence, by the way. It was a very intentional part of the design. The result is that players can be much closer to winning than they thought because they were only thinking about whether they will lose. In most games, being close to losing means far from winning, so it feels like you’re further than you are.
The upshot is that you can often win at higher difficulties than you’d otherwise expect. One of the things Spirit Island does well is making easy games feel challenging. Players like feeling challenged and they like winning. Spirit Island delivers both.
— Ted Vessenes, designer on Spirit Island
A common feature in Eurogames is a scoring mechanic (sometimes hidden) that keeps all players in the game until the end. You can recognize that someone is ahead of you, but you do not face a loss condition that eliminates you from the game. Contrast this with games like Monopoly or Risk, where eliminating opponents is the point of the game. Contrast this with games that do not have win conditions as such, just that you can lose The Game and the goal is to not-lose.
When we play a game with a loss condition, losing tends to mean being far from winning. The losing player has few playing pieces, little power, etc. Losing is far from winning. A mechanic more common in survival games is a race. You are trying to win before you lose, which seems like a tautology but plays differently from games where you are not racing against a loss condition but rather against other players’ attempts to win first or against other players who win by making you lose.
Spirit Island victories tend to feel either really amazing or kind of trivial. Racing against a loss condition can feel like kind of a cheat, as you steal victory from the jaws of defeat. A game like Blood Rage makes that a central mechanic, where it is Loki’s strategy is to win by losing. American games and stories tend to favor action heroes over guile heroes, so we are culturally primed to see “a trick” as generally a bad thing. You are supposed to smash your enemies, not win by getting a ninth fear card as they are on the verge of overwhelming the island. But that can also be an amazing feeling, as you see the race happening and roll under the closing door like Indiana Jones.
Other times, you are clearly ahead in the race but will take a while to claim technical victory. There are rules to bring about the end one way or the other, but if you get an early lead and just need to check off one box to win, it can become a dull waiting game as you try to whack that last mole. This is rarer and usually a sign you should dial up the difficulty.
But sometimes this creates the most amazing crescendo, where the only anticlimax is that your big turn at the end is so overwhelming that you do not get to play it all out. Your power accelerates as the enemy’s does, which gives you more targets and more ways to crush them. It is not uncommon to have a problem area festering on the map throughout the game, only to wipe it out in a turn or two, sweeping the invaders from the land while generating large amounts of fear, potentially hitting both win conditions on the same turn. The enemy buildup creates tension, and big tension leads to big explosions.
Finally, as the developer says, the games tend to feel closer than they are. The enemy is building up and spreading as you are, so even if you are way ahead of the curve, you can still get these hordes of enemies you are trying to contain. Unless you are very safe, you do not feel safe, and even then the next wave is coming.
As a gameplay note, I recommend having someone actively monitoring the win condition and calling it out at the start of the turn. It feels less like winning “just happened” if you can see that you are building towards it. “We are at terror level 2. We have 2 cities and 5 towns to clear out. We win if we eliminate all the buildings, or if we can clear those two cities and get 11 more fear. Invaders ravage in mountains this round then build in sands.” This is especially helpful for new players, because it focuses them on what is more important in the game right now.